Writing (or, How the dead lord it over the living)

Visiting Writing: Making Your Mark, an exhibition at the British Library, for New Scientist, 26 April 2019

Writing is dark magic. Because the written, or even better, carved, word can effortlessly outlive the human span, it enables the dead to lord it over the living.

There are advantages to this, of course. It’s handy not to have to reinvent the wheel generation after generation.

But let’s be clear who wields the power here – much as the ancient Egyptians, who used to channel the divine power of words into spells that would animate carved servants, or shabti, ready to do their bidding after their death. “Here I am,” reads the inscription on one poor put-upon shabti, ready “when called to work, cultivate fields or irrigate the riverbanks.”

Poetry be damned: writing is first and foremost about control.

This is very apparent in a new exhibition at the British Library, London, called Writing: Making your mark. It’s been launched to celebrate a technology that’s a bit under five millennia old, so you’ll find everything from carved stone slabs to the first ever use of an italic typeface, to (my favourite) an eye-wateringly vituperative telegram (in four parts) from the 20th century British playwright John Osborne to a hostile critic.

It’s comprehensive, thoughtful and eye-catching, with a design that has you wandering through what looks like some peculiar 3D cuneiform from the future. Best of all, the show makes narrative sense: we learn how various writing and printing forms evolved independently at different times and places, to fulfil changing social and cultural functions.

Granted, the story does not and cannot start with much of a bang. As the wall information concedes, the act of writing is just a recreational by-product of accounting. The first written records were tallies, calendars and contracts. Set aside their great age and the earliest objects in the exhibition (among them the oldest in the Library’s collection, an Egyptian stela (carved stone) from around 1600 BC) make for dull reading.

But amazingly early, suspicion, and even downright hatred, of the written word crept in – to run like a secret history beneath the course of Western culture. In the dialogue Phaedrus, composed around 370 BC, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates complains that writing things down will “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves… they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing”.

Plato, Socrates’ pupil, listened to his master’s diatribe intently. Indeed, he took down every word. Plato’s obtuse disobedience has paid huge dividends. For one thing, it means that Socrates’ wisdom is available to us all. Millennia hence, we are still reading Phaedrus, and smiling at the quaint bits.

But a few of us (we meet in dank basement rooms: check your pens and smartphones at the door) agree with Socrates. We reckon that putting pen (stylus, chisel or moveable type…) to paper (stone, slate, clay, or peeled bark) has set the lot of us on the road to everlasting perdition.

Our current all-too-well founded panics around trust, authority, truth and fake news feed the gloomy suspicion that the written word makes us lazy and shallow, that for all our modern, information-driven wonders, our space rockets and our antibiotics, it makes us less than we might be: a people earnestly conversing with themselves.

Writing: Making your mark does its best to win us round to the cause of literacy and preserved thought.

Who knew that the story of written forms would prove so epic? Or, indeed, so touching? There’s a sandstone sphinx sporting a prototype letter “A”, and a Greek child’s second-century homework scratched, laboriously, on a clay tablet.

But with their final room, about the future of writing, I feel the curators may finally have woken to doubt. A black box, and virtually empty, this space whether new media may undercut our surprisingly resilient written culture.

I’m surprised the curators’ confidence should have been so shaken. After all, written and printed forms continue to proliferate: emoji have provided us with a whole new writing system to combine with our alphabetic language. Instagram, once the home of unadorned selfie snaps, now wobbles and sparkles with photos smothered in animated annotations and one-liners in a form that’s so new it hasn’t really got a name yet. Writing continues to be one of our most plastic and fast-changing forms of self-expression.

Though with each innovation, we retreat, chattering, ever further from Socrates’ dinner party ideal of society driven by good conversation.

Keep Friday free: we’re plotting the return of Lawrence Durrell

It’s time we revalued “the old boy”. Poet. Excoriator of Pudding Island (the British Isles to you). Cocksman. Loudmouth. Shit. Author of experimental novels. Tipped for the Nobel. Despised then and now for writing seriously and sincerely about sex.

I want to save him from the lovies. From the old club-room farts with their tales of “Dear Larry”. From the cryptocolonial world-builders, the literary pudendum-collectors, the ex-pat snob-fantasists. I want people to remember Durrell’s teeth. His breath. His savage, uncompromising, funny-weird, gut-wrenching prose. And when the British Library came along asking, did I want to chair and contribute to a panel about Lawrence Durrell today? well, I grabbed at the chance, all the while thinking, Can’t they get anyone, well, let’s face it, bigger?

No. They cannot. (Faber got Jan Morris to write a new foreword to the Alexandria Quartet recently. I’ve read it: a pompous, contemptuous flob. Please God DBC Pierre does a better job with The Black Book.)

Why is it proving such an uphill struggle to recast Durrell for a new generation? For an answer, I fear we need look no further than the title to this week’s event: Reach Upwards to the Affirming Sun. Yes, I know where this line comes from, and yes, I still hate it. Reach upwards to the affirming sun, indeed – forgetting that Durrell was the all-time undisputed master of bathos. One might just as well have quoted from The Black Book:

The robin sits upon the bough
The postman has a nasty cough

which at least has some energy about it. But we’re lumbered. Reach Upwards to the Affirming Sun: Lawrence Durrell in 2012 takes place from 18.30 to 20.00 this Friday, 15 June 2012, at the Conference Centre, British Library,
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB

Joining me – and fielding some very different opinions – will be Nicoletta Demetriou, Andrew McKie, and Joanna Hodgkin, author of Amateurs in Eden, The Story of a Bohemian Marriage: Nancy and Lawrence Durrell.

Do come if you can and watch the fur fly. The evening costs £7.50 / £5 concessions, and don’t forget the Old Boy’s secret sign (revealed below)